A claim that the government is going to stop tracking COVID-19 deaths is going viral — even though it's misleading

·4 min read
COVID hospitalizations
A medical worker in full PPE reads a message on a computer screen while with a patient who has covid-19 in a negative pressure room in the ICU ward at UMass Memorial Medical Center in Worcester, Massachusetts on January 4, 2022.JOSEPH PREZIOSO/AFP via Getty Images
  • A viral claim falsely said the US government was no longer tracking COVID-19 deaths.

  • In reality, HHS is no longer asking hospitals to report COVID-19 deaths.

  • COVID-19 death counts also use data from the CDC and local or state agencies.

A claim that the US government is going to stop tracking daily COVID-19 deaths is misleading, despite the fact that it's been reshared thousands of times on Twitter.

"BREAKING," one viral tweet said. "US Government to end daily COVID death reporting."

The tweet then said the US Department of Health and Human Services will no longer require hospitals to report daily COVID-19 deaths to the agency. That part is true, according to guidance recently issued by HHS, but it does not necessarily impact the daily COVID-19 death counts that the vast majority of people have been consulting throughout the pandemic, experts said.

Nearly 3,000 people had retweeted the tweet as of Friday evening. The tweet also racked up concerned replies, including one that said, "The US government doesn't want us to know how many of us are dying," which received more than 1,500 likes.

Experts chimed in to counter the idea that the US was no longer tracking COVID-19 deaths.

"Seriously this is so misleading, please stop spreading it," Erin Kissane, who cofounded The Atlantic's COVID Tracking Project, said in a tweet.

Kissane said the daily death counts most people are following, like the one maintained by The New York Times, do not rely on or use data from HHS. She said those counts use data compiled by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention or from local and state health authorities directly.

"You will be seeing *exactly the same death counts* you saw before unless you're a very specialized data analyst," Kissane said.

According to The Times COVID-19 tracker, their sources for case numbers and deaths is "state and local health agencies." It says the source for their hospitalizations count is HHS.

In an email to Insider, Danielle Rhoades Ha, vice president of communications at The Times, said: "The New York Times tracker does not include death figures from the HHS dataset. We only use that dataset for hospitalizations, ICU capacity and other metrics about the health care strain."

"Our team collects death data at the state and local level, and also from the CDC, which still requires that state governments report deaths," she continued.

Justin Feldman, an epidemiologist at Harvard University, also tweeted that the change in HHS data "doesn't affect the real-time covid death data that most of us ever see."

In a message to Insider, Feldman said COVID-19 deaths are generally recorded when a death investigator, like a coroner or medical examiner, or a healthcare provider reports it directly to the state's vital statistics office. The offices then report their numbers to the CDC, the media, and often on public-facing websites. He added the reporting process varies by jurisdiction.

"It's also important to note that looking at covid deaths that occur in hospitals alone provides an incomplete picture," Feldman added. According to the CDC, about one-third of reported COVID-19 deaths in 2020 occurred outside of hospitals, though experts have said official counts have likely undercounted the true number of pandemic deaths.

Dr. Jorge Caballero, a physician and health data scientist, disagreed with Kissane and Feldman's belief that the HHS guidance would not impact the COVID-19 death counts most people are seeing. He told Insider in an email that in at least seven states hospitals report deaths to state agencies, which then report to the federal government. In the absence of a federal mandate, "the cadence will default to whatever the states deem to be appropriate for their needs," he said.

Kissane did not immediately respond to Insider's request for comment.

Caballero also expressed concern and questioned why HHS would stop tracking in-hospital COVID-19 deaths. He said in a tweet that the data are valuable by providing "a surveillance indicator for US health care system stress, capacity, capability, and/or patient safety."

HHS did not immediately respond to Insider's request for comment. In response to Caballero, an HHS spokesperson said: "COVID mortality data remains publicly accessible."

Caballero told Insider Americans will still see daily and weekly COVID-19 death counts, but that those counts are delayed and often incomplete, depending on if and how state and local agencies report deaths. He said the HHS hospital data are quicker and more reliable.

"This policy change means that, just as Omicron deaths skyrocket, we'll be in the dark about it, and we will hinder efforts to quantify how much the death certificate data underestimates the death toll during the current surge and beyond," he said.

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